THEO BLECKMANN: “ELEGY” (ECM 2512)
“Elegy” is Theo Bleckmann's album-length meditation on death and transcendence. Over the years, Bleckmann has defied audience expectations with unusual adaptations of music by Charles Ives and Kate Bush. On this album (his ECM debut as a leader), the first words we hear are from Stephen Sondheim’s “Comedy Tonight”, here sung in a slow tempo with Bleckmann affecting a distant tone and making surprising note choices. The publicity material explains that the song was performed as a tribute to Bleckmann’s recently-deceased mother, who retained her sense of humor through her 91 years on Earth. As the album progresses, Bleckmann sings several atmospheric pieces—most of them wordless—displaying his understanding of contemporary classical music, world music and contemporary jazz. On “The Mission”, Bleckmann utilizes non-traditional vocal techniques which sometimes merge into the sounds from Ben Monder’s guitar. These ethereal sounds occur over an active background provided by Shai Maestro (piano), Chris Tordini (bass) and John Hollenbeck (drums). The interaction between Maestro’s adventurous treble lines and Hollenbeck’s mallets on tom-toms is particularly exciting on this track and on the following instrumental cameo “”Littlefields”. The title track further explores the combination of Bleckmann’s vocalise and Monder’s fuzz-enabled guitar, with Tordini’s arco bass added to the mix. As the track reaches the halfway point, Maestro and Hollenbeck add to the complex soundscape, and in the last two minutes, the group performs a stunning group improvisation with Bleckmann using electronics to distort the sound of his voice. “To Be Shown to Monks at a Certain Temple” is set to an ancient text by Chiao Jan that encourages the mourner to “keep on moving” as “it’s silly to be sad”. After a pair of intriguing miniatures comes a strange up-tempo piece called “Take My Life” in which the singer’s body parts stop working one by one. Bleckmann says it was inspired by Bach’s “Ich Habe Genug” which is about joyful anticipation of the afterlife, but this will doubtlessly be a piece that will trigger many philosophical discussions among listeners. “Elegy” is not an easy album to experience (especially for those who have suffered personal loss) but it is music that can soothe and heal wounded souls.
“DOUBLE BASS, DOUBLE VOICE” (self-released)
In 2011, vocalist Nancy Harms landed a gig with an unique requirement: there could be no more than three musicians on the stage. Most singers would have opted for an instrumental duo, but Harms decided to flip the model on its head, hiring vocalist Emily Braden and bassist Steve Whipple. The result was the trio “Double Bass, Double Voice” which has just released its first (eponymous) album. Over the past few years, the trio has developed an eclectic repertoire drawing from rock, pop, jazz, soul and gospel styles. The CD opens with a joyous Braden feature on Stevie Wonder’s “Ribbon in the Sky”. Braden’s soulful alto digs deep into Whipple’s supple groove, and the pairing of Harms and Braden yields a delightful transparent blend. They sing in flawless unison through most of Walter Hawkins’ “Going Up Yonder”, splitting apart for occasional solo lines and harmony parts. Harms’ touching solo on “Skylark” recalls the delicate approach she used on Jeremy Siskind’s “Housewarming” and her own “Ellington at Night”. Braden gets a little less space on this track, but her pure tone and impeccable phrasing make a great impression. Meanwhile, Whipple fills up the room with his full, rich bass tone. Without losing their vocal identities, Harms and Braden add some uptown sass for Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home to Me”, and engage in lovely parallel harmony on Duke Ellington’s “Just Squeeze Me”. On the latter track, Braden whistles a series of four-bar phrases which Whipple answers instrumentally. The Beatles’ “Dear Prudence” gets a dramatic reading from Harms and a stunning interlude with the two voices in harmony over Whipple’s strongly bowed bass. Whether the material is hand-clapping gospel tunes, edgy rock classics, harrowing spirituals, or Tin Pan Alley standards, Double Bass, Double Voice offers simple, effective arrangements that challenge and delight the listener.